With two young children, Meghan Leckey couldn’t fathom boarding a commercial airplane for her regular trips between homes in Chicago and South Florida during the coronavirus pandemic. Waiting in lines, wearing a mask and constantly wiping down surfaces so her family could stay safe just didn’t seem feasible for the 37-year-old restaurant owner.
So four weeks ago, Leckey and her family, who ordinarily would fly first class, bought a private jet.
“The idea that everyone was sort of dreading it was really the motivation,” she said of flying on a commercial airplane. “In April, when we were in the epicenter of the pandemic, no one wanted to make the trek and do all the restrictions that were now imposed on us.”
Leckey, a frequent traveler who routinely spends $800-$1,200 per first-class seat, had been chartering planes on and off for the past 10 years. Before that, her father owned a private jet for business, but he sold it when he sold his company.
After spending a few months grounded with no end in sight for the coronavirus pandemic, Leckey said everyone in the family agreed: “It was time to get back to the private plane lifestyle.”
“We’re going to be in a pandemic for at least the foreseeable future,” she said. “This isn’t going to go away.”
A pricey proposition
Leckey’s move to purchase a private jet last month, though still a luxury only accessible to the ultra-rich, is indicative of a larger trend starting to appear in the travel industry. Like Leckey, some people who once flew in business or first class are making the switch to chartering a private jet, and those who once chartered planes are taking the major step of purchasing their own plane to avoid crowded airports altogether as the coronavirus pandemic marches on.
Depending on the size of a plane, chartering a jet for a one-way trip from Chicago to Miami can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $44,000, while purchasing one can cost anywhere from $3 million to $90 million.
Mark Ahasic, president of Ahasic Aviation Advisors, said multiple factors are driving the sudden growth he’s seen in the industry. Not only can worried flyers avoid the discomfort in being sardined in a commercial airliner, flying in private planes lets them avoid airport terminals, lines and crowds, which have morphed from an annoyance to a potential health risk for many.
“The other thing that may be driving the increase in private jet use is that there’s really a reduced schedule in the U.S.” Ahasic said. “Obviously airlines are operating, but there’s been a lot fewer flights than there have been [in the past], and that means that it may be difficult to get a seat in a certain non-stop market.”
Charter business takes off
This shift bodes well for those in the business of chartering and managing private aircraft. Mike Mitera, who owns Chicago Jet Group, said the pandemic has been the busiest time in the company’s 18-year history.
Overall, Mitera said he’s seen a 30-40% growth in business since March, pushing him to make an unprecedented investment in nearly doubling his aircraft inventory, from seven planes on management and charter to 11.
“People who ... have the money to ride first class and chose not to charter, those people ... now no longer wish to ride first class and sit next to someone they don’t know. And those are the exact words that I was told by several people,” Mitera said.
“And those people who have been chartering have even stepped up to buy an airplane because of the fact that they just want the comfort to know that that’s their airplane and nobody else has been on it.”
Vince Schideman, a managing partner at Triumph Jets, also based in Chicago, said pre-pandemic, his company was doing 10-20 trips per month. “Now, we’re easily 10 times that,” he said. The company, which launched in 2016, has seen its most profitable months ever from May to July.
“They don’t want to put their families at risk,” Schideman said of his clients. “If you can afford this way of travel, then it’s completely justifiable at this point. People have to travel, the world has to move, and if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it in the safest way possible.”
A family affair
Both Mitera and Schideman said while there has been a slight rise in corporate clientele, his biggest growth area has been families or elderly passengers looking to avoid COVID-19 exposure at all costs.
“Our biggest uptick has been the family vacation stuff and then the elderly, or maybe immunocompromised people that need to avoid groups of people right now,” Schideman said.
Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Arizona have been the most popular destinations: “There is a little bit of escapism right now,” he said.
As for whether he expects business to revert to post-pandemic levels when there’s a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment available, Ahasic said he thinks it’ll be a mixed bag.
“Once there’s hopefully a vaccine and people feel comfortable again traveling, there’s likely to be less onerous restrictions on social distancing and wearing a mask, so I think some people will say, ‘You know what, it’s safe to go back to commercial air travel … the schedules are back to where they used to be,’” he said.
“But I wouldn’t be surprised if this does convince some people to say, ‘I’m going to use a private jet in the future. It’s so convenient, the kids loved it, and I don’t have to deal with the airport experience’ … I think some people might really stay with this and really be sold on it.”
Schideman’s confident it’ll be the latter. He said for those who get accustomed to the private jet lifestyle, it’ll be hard to go back to commercial airplanes.
“Most of the customers that end up doing this, they don’t want to fly any other way,” he said.